If You Can't Take the Heat ...

Maybe cancel culture isn't about politics so much as not knowing how to argue well.

Tribalism and the cancel culture it inspires has been on the rise over the past 5-10 years, and both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of it. Normally I would pooh-pooh claims that "both sides are doing it" – that always seemed to me to be somewhat pro forma – but in this case, it really is true.

One can hardly bear to listen to either side these days.

It's all rant, all the time, and never give even an inch of ground to the opposing side. If you don't agree 100% with me, you are an utterly despicable person, and therefore I don't have to listen to you. And it's not just in politics. Right across the board, society has lost the art of arguing well.

Maybe the reason we're seeing the ascent of cancel culture has little to do with the specifics of what we disagree on, and more to do with people just not knowing how to agree to disagree, how to hold the other side in respect and friendship even when (especially when) we think they're wrong.

The freedom to express oneself used to be a hallmark of American society. I grew up with the concept of "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Today, this sentiment is far from universal. Speak against your tribe today, and you are an outcast on the very fringes of society.

Remarkably, the most intolerant are the young. The young used to be the most open-minded. It was the older people who were fixed, stodgy, unchanging. But now, the older you are, the more likely you will have been raised up in a pluralistic culture, and you will have learned how to disagree. The younger you are, the more you will have been raised up in a monoculture, and will have had very little exposure to friendly disagreement.

Good Arguments Solve Problems

At one point in my career I belonged to a software architecture team of very talented and highly opinionated colleagues. One of our sayings was "there are seventeen ways to solve any software problem, but only one of them is any good". To be a software architect, you must know how to argue, because to find that optimal solution you have to be able to compare and contrast all the pros and cons fairly and completely. If you can't advocate for every side, you just don't understand the problem sufficiently yet.

For some reason, corporate HR felt that we had a problem communicating with each other ("look at those guys, they're always arguing!"), so they had a consultant come in and give us a Myers-Briggs test to help us better understand one another's communication styles.

One of the styles we were tested on was how comfortable we were with arguing. Much to my amazement, when we examined our answers, there were 11 people on the team who said they hated arguing, and only 1 person who didn't mind it: me. (It goes without saying that of course this resulted in the entire group immediately arguing with me about why I liked to argue.)

But in fact I don't "like" to argue. What I like is resolution. What I like is getting it right. I recognize that arguing can be absolutely essential. Even if people get emotional and lose their tempers, arguing is worthwhile. It is as vital as the nervous system is to the body. You literally cannot function without it.

The irony is that nothing settles a dispute like a good, hard argument. That seems like a contradiction, but in a good argument everyone gets to hear every side, the good and the bad. Everyone gets to hear impassioned enthusiasm and cold, hard analysis; fact and counter-fact; the inspired and the insipid. Just being able to finally, finally! express some long-held opinion in an open discussion can have an amazing cathartic and bonding effect on the team.

When all that is on the table, it is much easier to tell what the optimal answer is. The answer shows itself, it doesn't need convincing, and the dispute can come to an agreeable end. Even in those rare case where there really is more than one good answer, everyone can see that there are excellent arguments on both sides, so it really doesn't matter which one we go with. Either one will do. We can agree to disagree.

The Ingredients of Arguing Well

Being able to argue well comes from putting the solution first, from mutual respect, and from fellowship.

By putting the solution first, I mean everyone in the argument is committed to solving the problem above any personal consideration. Unless it is a joint effort and everybody wants to see the best solution win, you cannot have a good argument. It is a waste of time to have an argument with people who are not committed to this. You cannot be in agreement with people who do not wish to be agreed with. People are stubborn that way.

It is putting the solution first which allows one to be gracious in defeat and to agree to disagree when there is no one answer. It's not that we take our egos out of the situation, it's that we collectively harness our egos in the service of finding the solution. If we don't win the day today, then as long as we had a chance to be heard and to persuade, we can be satisfied with losing. Tomorrow is another day. More experience and more data may change people's minds.

The basis for granting one another the right to speak is mutual respect. Everyone is good at something. Everyone. Everyone has unique insights, experiences, and knowledge that are potentially useful and helpful. Most advances do not present themselves immediately like a ripe apple just hanging there on a low branch. You have to work them, tease them out, trying first one variation and then another, slowly improving on each iteration. Whole group participation is essential.

One of the most damaging things you can do in an argument is to assume that those who disagree with you are doing so from impure, ulterior motives. Doing this destroys mutual respect on contact. You can never, ever reach a mutually-agreeable solution with someone you do not trust. The only thing you would ever be "agreeing" to is agreeing to not trust them.

Lastly, arguing well is something that only people who honestly admire and appreciate one another can do. A good argument is a joint effort. It is teamwork. If there is no solution proposed by the other side that you would be willing to live with, regardless of its merits, then you have already poisoned the well yourself.

No one is entirely evil. No one is entirely good. No one is entirely wrong. No one is entirely right. We exist in a world where we "only see in a mirror, dimly". People need our trust, and they deserve to be granted some slack. Life is hard and complex! Nothing is very simple.

That does not mean that "the truth is always in the middle", however. There is an optimal solution to most problems, but it varies based on requirements, capabilities, and context. In my experience, truth is almost never in the middle, in fact. Truth is more like a Lego set where the pieces are spread out all over the room; one person finds a piece under the sofa, while another finds a piece behind the bookcase, and it's a third person who recognizes that the two need to go together (but only if you rotate the first piece by 90 degrees.)

Image Credit: "A heated argument over a policy decition" by rikaru is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


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